Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tao Book: "The Taoist Body" By Kristofer Schipper

There are a great many books on philosophical Taoism, but not as many about Taoist religion. The Taoist Body is a very complete overview of the practices and function of religious Taoism, which is an inseparable part of traditional Chinese culture. To study Taoism as a religion is also to study the sociology of China. The author, Kristofer Schipper is a Dutch born scholar who has dedicated his life to the study of Taoist religion. So much in fact that he lived in Taiwan for several years and became an ordained Taoist priest. This parallels the life of another Taoist scholar, Michael Saso, author of Taoist Master Chuang. Saso's book goes into great detail describing the rituals of Taoist magic. The Taoist Body however is much broader in scope.

One of the most fascinating parts is the chapter that deals with puppets and mediums. Puppet shows are popular throughout China and can be enjoyed anytime of year. However, these are not just shows for children and have a much more serious purpose. Puppet dramas are almost always held around festivals or religious events. Puppet theater is one of the oldest art forms in China. Puppets and puppeteering are a very powerful form of magic. The seventh month of the Lunar calendar in China is known as ghost month. This is when the ghosts of the dead wander the earth. Most feared are the "hungry ghosts". These are the souls of people who died unnatural or violent deaths or who have no family to conduct the funeral and ceremonial rites to appease their souls. These ghosts can cause sickness or even death in those they afflict. It is during ghost month that many puppet dramas are held in outdoor venues. However, the seats in front of the stage are empty. No one watches these dramas. They are not for the living, but to help calm and appease the hungry ghosts. Not just entertainment, they are a liturgical magic to help free these souls. Proper puppet troupes have thirty-six puppets with seventy-two heads making a total of 108, which is the total number of constellations. 108 is also significant as the number of sins or temptations that someone must overcome to reach nirvana in Buddhism. Behind the stage there is an altar for the puppets were ceremonies are performed before the show can begin. Most powerful are the clown puppets. Puppet dramas are sponsored by local communities in response to disasters such as fire, floods, and epidemics. The puppets also exorcise demons. But for all their magic, it is the unseen master puppeteer who wields the real power.

Mediums are also common in China. They are called "children" by the local communities. They go into trances and are possessed by spirits and the gods speak to the people through them. trances are quite common during religious ceremonies and there may be several mediums in trances at the same time. The mediums are half naked, and are often symbolically dressed as babies. They poked needles into their bodies and perform stunts like walking over hot coals or climbing a ladder of knives to show their spiritual power. They may wield swords or other weapons to chase evil spirits away while in their rapture. The mediums are always accompanied by an "assistant" who dresses them, helps them up and interprets the unintelligible speech for those who seek the gods counsel. He is often dressed very similar to the medium and wears a red turban. He is, in fact the medium's master and a shaman. Like something out of Star Wars, he is often the one who trained the medium and the master controls the entire seance. The master will summon the Gods for these ceremonies or trances. Interestingly, if called upon, the Gods cannot refuse. The master wields his power through the medium. Actually the medium is just a substitue for a puppet and performs a very similar function. These shamans are known as "red headed" Taoists and their magic and power are considered a lower form of Taoism. A higher sect are the "black headed" Taoists. These are ordained Taoist priests with their higher liturgical, meditative magic.

As mentioned above the hungry ghots are restless spirits that cannot pass on and are feared. Ironically however, it is only these hungry ghosts that have the potntial to become gods. There are many examples of this such as Ma-tsu, patron saint of sailors and protector of children. She began life as a real person and lived a pure life and appeared as a vision to save her brothers at sea.. After her death, and over years of worship, she was elevated to god status. Another is the hero Lord Kuan, a fierce warrior, who was executed by his enemies. Afterward, he avenged his own death by possessing the body of his enemy, killing him.

Schipper gives an overview of the various kinds of Taoist rituals. In every ritual there is always the burning of ceremonial papers. These have different functions. Some consecrate the temple grounds and others are powerful talismans to banish evil. They are written in calligraphy style on narrow strips of yellow paper. Chinese horror-comedy movies often show the taoist fighting a horde of undead vampires. The priest writes one of these talismans and slaps it onto the vampires forehead immobilizing it. The Taoist heaven and pantheon of the gods is envisioned as a great imperial bureaucracy. Messages must be sent and heavenly clerks must be paid. A great deal of these ceremonial papers are paper money.

Later, the books describes Taoist meditation and internal alchemy, the circulation of chi. All of this is squarely centered in the teachings of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. This book is required reading for anyone interested in Taoist religion. Whereas Saso's Taoist Master Chuang gives us a close up look at a few rituals, The Taoist Body takes us a few steps back and offers us a broader view of the Taoist landscape. It makes it a real place and shows us the cultural backdrop that Taoism developed in and still lives on today.

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